When we first looked at this house, the owner told me that there was a neighborhood book group. “No pressure to join,” she quickly added, implying that we would still enjoy some privacy and independence even on this tight-knit little dead-end street. In the five years since, I believe it has fizzled, but I never did go. Not so much a joiner to begin with, I was voted by my senior class in high school “Most Likely to Make You Look and Wonder.”
I have tried, though. I joined an online book group through facebook last year, encouraged by the fact that it would be facilitated by Patti Digh, author of the book Life is a Verb and the website 37 Days, which I love. I was all enthusiasm and good-faith effort when I went online to order the first month’s pick, Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. My used copy arrived a few days later, but life happened, I missed the first “gathering” by conference call, and the book has stood unread on a bookshelf in my office ever since.
I’m just such a fickle reader. On the one hand, I have carted around memoirs and collections of poetry, anthologies and a handful of novels from one state to another over two decades, spent hours and hours in half-a-dozen apartments and houses arranging them on the shelves. I have an intimate relationship with my books, just as I did back in high school with the books in my father’s study, many of which migrated upstairs to my own bedroom, where I would stay up late writing found poems, grabbing words from the ends of lines of randomly opened-to pages. And of course I continue to imagine and dream and take steps toward creating, writing, books of my own.
All that said, I probably actually read one in every… three, five, ten books I pick up? I have absolutely none of that compulsion to finish what I start; if a book doesn’t speak to me in a voice so lucid and compelling that I cannot put it down right away, chances are I will put it down – and never pick it back up. It’s not even necessarily about how good the writing is; there’s something else, some je ne sais quoi quality that seems to determine whether I fall into, fall in love with, a book. Or not. Something magical, mysterious, inexplicable.
In Vieques last winter, I plucked Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark off the shelf, where it was surrounded by a surreal mix of beach novels and Holocaust memoirs. Over the course of maybe 48 hours, I had that delicious experience of immersing myself in another world. I read over my cereal bowl in the morning and over my ice-cream bowl at night. My mind concocted a visual, three-dimensional world of the book’s locations and characters. I remembered, as I do a few times a year, what I love about reading.
In recent memory, The Glass Castle was similarly intoxicating, as was Bliss Broyard’s One Drop, a memoir about learning that her father – who passed as white – came from a Creole family in New Orleans. Dani Shapiro’s memoirs, Slow Motion and Devotion, were respectively riveting and unsettling to devour, and Hand Wash Cold, by Karen Maezen Miller, reminded me of everything I already know but so often forget to practice.
And still, I marvel at people who finish books.
Today, I sit down on the couch in my office wanting to write but with that stuck feeling, sitting with too much emotion, exhausted by thinking, feeling the pull of the to-do list and the opposing one rallying me to avoidance. I glance at the shelf, thinking maybe I could get lost in a book. And I spot the green spine of that Audre Lorde collection of essays and speeches, the one I barely cracked last winter.
I open it to Page 153 and read:
I know the anger that lies inside of me like I know the beat of my heart and the taste of my spit. It is easier to be angry than to hurt. Anger is what I do best. It is easier to be furious than to be yearning.
I go backwards from there, to the previous page, and continue reading in the way I’ve heard Nabokov wrote, from within the story going outward, not in a linear, chronological way, but in a felt, intuitive way, letting the story emanate outward from itself. I am emanating outward, starting at various points within and seeing where they lead. This reminds me of something my young nephew said a few years back: “Backwards is the new forwards.” And of another favorite axiom: We’re so far behind, we’re ahead.
I go back to the book and continue reading:
And true, sometimes it seems that anger alone keeps me alive; it burns with a bright and undiminished flame. Yet anger, like guilt, is an incomplete form of human knowledge. More useful than hatred, but still limited. Anger is useful to help clarify our differences, but in the long run, strength that is bred by anger alone is a blind force which cannot create the future. It can only demolish the past. Such strength does not focus upon what lies ahead, but upon what lies behind, upon what created it – hatred. And hatred is a deathwish for the hated, not a lifewish for anything else.
The beat of my heart. Hurt. Yearning. What lies ahead. Creating a future. “Lifewish.” Jesus, that word alone. Lifewish.
These words and phrases reach out and take me by the shoulders, kind but firm. Now Audre is looking at me, eye to eye. Fierce. Unflinching. And then I find myself on page 153 again, and suddenly, she really is, looking at me directly and with openness. Eye to eye.
And to acknowledge our dreams is to sometimes acknowledge the distance between those dreams and our present situation. Acknowledged, our dreams can shape the realities of our future, if we arm them with the hard work and scrutiny of now. We cannot settle for the pretenses of connection, or for parodies of self-love. We cannot continue to evade each other on the deepest levels because we fear each other’s angers, nor continue to believe that respect means never looking directly nor with openness into another Black woman’s eyes. I was not meant to be alone and without you who understand.
She understands me.
And I decide, right here and now, that I have read the book. In my own way, tasting my own spit, feeling my own heart beating, without pretense or parody, without evasion or fear. With my eyes open, looking directly into yours.